So that was to be my first assignment.
A three-year-old girl.
Sounds simple enough. I mean, how much trouble can a three-year-old girl get herself into, right?
Rebecca's mother, Jane, perched her on her lap during lunch, dished up a small portion of food, and chatted with her daughter as she fed it to her. She was plainly a kind and caring mother.
The girl yammered on in that toddler's voice that only a mother can understand. First, she told her mom how much fun she'd had playing with her fire engine, then about the songs she'd sung and the pictures she'd drawn in nursery school...
And then I realised that I could understand every word she was saying, perfectly.
She yawned, and her mother told her to put her hand in front of her mouth when she did that.
"I'm bored," I thought I heard her say. "I hope mommy lets me go soon. I want to go play."
But her lips hadn't moved. And that's when it hit me, and it made perfect sense. It wasn't so much that I could understand what she was saying; it was that I could hear everything she was thinking.
When Jane finally let Rebecca go, and lifted her off her lap and onto the ground, the girl ran off excitedly.
I took a moment to survey the kitchen. There was a blue plastic table in the centre of the room, with four steel-and-plastic chairs around it. The floor was a black-and-white chequerboard pattern.
The back door was open, and Rebecca was heading straight for it.
"Rebecca, sweetie, watch out for that..."
And then time stopped.
I could see the poor girl, suspended in mid-step, her right foot in the air, about to make contact with the ground. The ground that wasn't there. In her haste, Rebecca had forgotten about the rather high step just outside the back door. If I didn't act soon, she would tumble down it, and that could do some serious harm.
I lunged forward, between her and the open doorway, and shoved her in the chest.
Time started again.
Rebecca fell backwards, just as her mother was on her feet, running towards her daughter, who fell flat on her bottom.
The girl looked up, and slowly her playful grin turned into a frown. She screamed blue murder.
Jane picked her up, and held her close, "There, there. Did you fall on your bum? Don't worry, you'll be fine." She sighed. "That could've been a lot worse."
Rebecca looked up at her mom, pouted her lips, and said, clear as anything, "Shit!"
Jane's eyes went wide. I thought she was angry, but all at once, she burst out laughing. "Rebecca," she tried to sound stern. "I don't know where you heard that word, but I don't ever want to hear you say it again. That's a bad word." She wagged her finger in front of Rebecca's face, but then she hugged her daughter again and said, "I'm really glad you're okay, though. You'd better thank your guardian angel for that one."
Even though I knew it was only an expression, I beamed with pride. I screamed, "Yes! Yes, that was me!"
But of course, Jane didn't hear me. Jane didn't even know I was there.
But something strange happened: Rebecca stopped crying, sniffed, and looked directly at me. She let out a giggle.
"Can you see me?" I asked, but she just turned away again, and buried her face in her mother's chest.
Later that day, Rebecca was sitting on Jane's lap in the lounge, watching cartoons. The child was giggling hysterically at the antics on the screen, while Jane was nodding off.
I was beginning to wonder where Rebecca's father was in all of this when I heard a car door slam outside.
Rebecca heard it too. She leapt up from the couch. "Daddy!" she yelled, running towards the front door. Jane smiled thinly, wiped her brow, and slowly got to her feet.
By the time Rebecca got to the door, the key was in the lock, and I could hear it turning, the other keys jangling on the keyring.
The door opened, and a man stepped through. He looked older than Jane, and wore a suit with the top button undone and a tie pulled loose. He needed a shave, but the black hair on his head was cut short.
"Becca!" he said, as he picked up his daughter, and hugged her tight.
He glanced over at Jane. "Hey, babe. How was your day?"
"Hi, Mark. It was fine, thank you. Why are you in such a good mood?"
"No reason." He kissed Rebecca on the head. "Just a good day at work. And I couldn't wait to come home to my two favourite girls."
Jane rolled her eyes and left the room.
I'm so glad daddy's in a good mood today, thought Rebecca. I don't like it when he's upset.
This thought-reading thing was going to take some getting used to.
That night, Rebecca had begged her parents to let her sleep in her own room. Jane was apprehensive, but Mark agreed eagerly, saying it would give him some quality time with his wife. Finally, Jane acquiesced.
I was standing over Rebecca, tucked into bed, under her Hello Kitty duvet with her head resting on her Hello Kitty pillow. She was awake and staring straight at me. I knew she couldn't see me, but I was convinced that she could sense me.
There were low mumbles coming from her parents' room next door. I couldn't make out what they were saying, but I knew Rebecca could hear them too.
After a few moments, a word could be clearly heard: "Bitch!"
Then, a slightly lower voice, but still discernible. "Keep your voice down, Mark. You'll wake Rebecca."
Rebecca started grizzling. I heard her thoughts. Why does it always happen? Don't mommy and daddy love each other?
"I'll wake Rebecca?" Mark raised his voice a bit more. "That's rich, coming from you. You started it! Why do you have to be so damn cold all the time?"
"I'm not cold 'all the time'. You got sex just the other day. I'm not a machine, you know."
Rebecca stopped grizzling. She went deathly silent, wide eyes staring at the ceiling, and she pulled her duvet up under her chin.
Her parents' bedroom door slammed open, and I heard the stomping of feet down the passage. Then the front door slammed open and closed. A short while later, I heard faint sobs through the wall adjoining the two rooms.
"Rebecca," I asked, "does daddy ever hit mommy?"
If she heard me, she didn't show it. She just pulled the duvet up higher and stared at the ceiling with those wide, terrified eyes.
The mood was cold the next morning at breakfast. Rebecca sat next to Jane at the kitchen table, rubbing milk and cereal all over her face, while Jane tried unsuccessfully to feed her.
Mark came into the room shirtless and unshaven, scratching under his arm. He'd arrived home late last night, drunk, and fallen into bed next to Jane.
Nodding at his wife and daughter, he grunted and opened the cupboard to retrieve a bowl. He set it down hard on the counter, grabbed the box of cereal and poured himself a helping. After opening the fridge and taking out the box of milk, he sloshed some into the bowl. The kitchen chair grated on the linoleum floor as he pulled it out, breaking the silence in the room. He sat down.
"Aren't you going to put the milk back in the fridge?" asked Jane.
Mark got up with a huff and made a dramatic showing of opening the fridge, returning the milk, and closing the door. He bowed theatrically and sat back down at the table and took himself a spoon off the cutlery rack.
Jane stared blankly at him and shook her head. "Why aren't you dressed? You're going to be late for work."
"Going in later," said Mark, through a mouthful of cereal. "Got a late meeting."
"Well, we need to get going, or Rebecca's going to be late for school." She stood up and took Rebecca's hand. "Come along, baby." Jane leaned in to kiss Mark, but he turned his cheek. She clenched her fists in frustration, but kept her voice even. "Well, since you're leaving later, would you mind clearing up?"
When Mark didn't respond, Jane walked Rebecca to the door, opened it, and dragged her out.
"Bye, daddy!" said Rebecca.
Daddy just nodded.
It turned out that Jane was a teacher at a Primary School not far from where Rebecca went. Her hours made it easy to drop her daughter off in the mornings, and pick her up on the way home.
Rebecca was still distraught about her father, but she was a brave girl. She didn't say anything about what had happened last night or this morning. It was a short drive to her nursery school, and she chatted along about all the things that she was going to do today.
When they arrived, Jane went to the back and unbuckled Rebecca's car seat. As she was lifted out of the seat, Rebecca didn't whine or sniffle, and her mother even had to remind her to give her a kiss.
She struggled her way out of her mother's arms, yelled "Bye, mommy!" and ran into her teacher's waiting arms.
Katie beamed when Rebecca arrived. She leant forward and put her hands on the tops of her knees. "Good morning, Rebecca! How are you today?"
"Good!" replied Rebecca, and gave her teacher a big hug around the waist.
"I'm glad. Come along. Let's go inside, and join the other children."Some of the others had already arrived and were sitting on the floor in a circle, waiting for the rest of the kids.
I really like school, thought Rebecca. I hope daddy's okay.
After everyone was settled, Katie announced story-time. She pulled up a chair and sat in the circle. The children gathered around.
Katie started telling her story, about three little pigs. It had something to do with houses, and a wolf blowing them down, but Rebecca wasn't really paying attention. She kept thinking about her dad, who didn't even say goodbye to them this morning. She wondered if she'd done something to upset him. If he didn't love her anymore.
All of a sudden, Katie stopped talking. The children were pointing at Rebecca and giggling.
It pains me to admit, I was too caught up in Rebecca's thoughts to notice what had happened. Rebecca looked down at her crossed legs, to see a puddle of urine on the floor between them. Once she realised what she'd done, she went red in the face and burst into tears.
Katie wasted no time getting up from her chair and picking Rebecca up. She held her close and cooed. "Aw, did we have a little accident? Don't worry, Rebecca. It happens to everyone, and people shouldn't laugh at you." She scowled at the other children, who stopped laughing and looked away sheepishly. "Now, let's see if mommy packed you some spare clothes."
She had. Katie took Rebecca into the bathroom, and changed her. Soon, Rebecca was giggling playfully again, and the whole incident was forgotten.
Cut-and-stick time. The children giggled playfully to themselves as they cut magazines to ribbons.
Rebecca was cutting a picture of a model, from an article about obesity and eating disorders. Of course, she didn't know what the article was about since she couldn't read. She was just thinking it was a pretty lady, who looked a bit like mommy.
There I was, getting sidetracked again. I forced myself to snap out of it, just in time to see Rebecca's head roll forward, a smidge too much. She held the scissors in her right hand, pointing upward, and if I didn't do something soon, she would poke her eye out!
Just like what had happened in the house the previous day, time froze. This time, I wasn't surprised. Quickly, I moved forward, grabbed the scissors out of her hand, and threw them on the table. I restarted the clock (so to speak), and Rebecca punched herself in the eye.
For a moment, it seemed as though time had frozen all over again. Rebecca looked up, and her smiling lips slowly curled downward. Then she burst into tears.
"Oh dear, Rebecca's really in the wars today, isn't she?" Katie rushed over and put her arm around her shoulders. "There, there. It's all right. No harm done. Let's have a look at what you're busy with."
"No harm done" was right. Thanks to me. I was beginning to get a handle on this whole "guardian angel" thing, but I wasn't quite sure if I liked it. I breathed a sigh of relief.
When Jane arrived that afternoon to pick Rebecca up from school, she noticed that her daughter was in her spare clothes. Katie explained to her about the unfortunate accident.
Rebecca blinked at her mother with wide, apologetic eyes. "Sorry, mommy."
Jane clicked her tongue, feigning disappointment, but then she smiled lovingly. "That's okay, baby," she said as she picked her daughter up and cuddled her. "These things happen. That's why I send spare clothes. Let's just not make a habit of it, okay?"
Rebecca grinned happily. "Okay, mommy."
"Now, say goodbye to Katie. You'll see her tomorrow."
Rebecca gave her teacher a hug and a kiss on the cheek and waved goodbye as Jane carried her to the car.
"Mommy, when's daddy coming home?"
Rebecca was sitting on her mother's lap at the kitchen table. She'd not been very talkative during the ride home from school, giving only one-word answers when Jane had asked her what they got up to. I knew she was thinking about her dad. I tried to project positive thoughts into her head, to try to get her to cheer up, but none of it had worked.
Jane bit her lip. "He'll be home by five, baby."
"What's the time?"
Despite herself, her mother chuckled. She glanced at the clock on the wall. "It's half past four. Maybe it's time you learnt to tell time."
"Mommy, I'm only three!" Rebecca giggled, and Jane leaned in and tickled her tummy. That was probably the first time I'd seen her smile all afternoon.
Five o'clock came and went, and Jane decided they may as well eat dinner. She dished up a plate for Mark and put it in the warm oven. Then she and Rebecca sat down to eat, or rather to try and get Rebecca to eat.
Six o'clock came and went. Rebecca kept wondering where her father was. Each time she asked, Jane became more and more agitated. Eventually, she yelled, "Becca, I don't know!"
This caused Rebecca to burst into tears, and run to her room. Since I am forced to go wherever my ward goes, I found myself standing there beside her.
I wish daddy were here, she thought. Mommy will feel much better when daddy comes back.
After a few moments, Rebecca realised nobody was paying attention. Her tantrum disappeared, and she shrugged and waddled into the lounge, sat down on the floor and picked up the doll she'd left there the previous day. She held it up and pretended it was a woman, making dinner.
At five past six, a car door slammed in the street outside. A moment later, the sound of a key rattling in the lock.
At the sound, Jane came back into the lounge.When the door opened, Mark stumbled in, reeking of alcohol.
"Daddy!" cried Rebecca, and ran towards him with her arms outstretched. He didn't acknowledge her. He just slurred, "Wheresh my dinner?"
"In the oven," replied Jane. "You're late. And drunk."
Mark waved her away, loped across to the kitchen and opened the drawer. "It's dry."
"Well, that's what you get when you leave food in a warm oven for an hour."
"You stupid bitch!" said Mark, as he lunged towards her. "I don't have to deal with this."
"Mommy!" screamed Rebecca, as massive tears rolled down her cheeks. She ran towards her parents, getting in between them.
If Mark saw her, he didn't care. He kicked her so hard that she landed on her butt and skidded across the floor. She screamed even louder.
Jane punched Mark in the face. He took a step back and looked at her incredulously, massaging his jaw. He didn't say a word.
Rebecca's mother got down on her haunches and cradled her daughter's face in her hands. She looked up at Mark.
"Get out!" she screamed.